Filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead are obviously a creative duo. Their contribution to the modern day omnibus horror film V/H/S Viral (2014) remains one of the best of the lot while their third film, Spring (2014), is an inventive post-modern creature-feature with enormous heart. Basically, the guys love weirdly spliced-up genre.
And that’s exactly what we get with their latest effort, The Endless. Tackling such diverse themes as time travel, cultish mind altering brainwashing and the simple dynamics of brotherly love, it’s a film never short on ideas or suspended tension. That’s also its weakness, however.
Compiled through a series of half baked ideas and a general atmosphere of wanting to reveal as little as possible while maintaining a superiority of weirdness, some may find The Endless an invigorating exercise in low-fi theatrics. I found it to be a fairly insufferable, empty drama whose minor ideas about the bond of family far outweighed the ‘hocus-pocus’ larger story of possible UFO visitation and anguished time loops.
The more honest ‘family angle’ is represented by directors Benson and Moorhead, taking the roles of like-named brothers fending for themselves in low paying jobs as the film opens. The more emotionally malleable of the two is Aaron. It’s he who receives a package one day with a VHS tape (of course) inviting him back to the “cult compound” the brothers once escaped a few years ago after the death of their parents.
Reluctantly, Justin gives in and the brothers return to Camp Arcadia. It’s in this introductory portion that The Endless mostly succeeds. The hints of strangeness are embedded all around the brothers — i.e., why does the guy known as Shitty Carl (James Jordan) simply walk around over and over, ignoring any and all communication — but Benson and Moorhead are careful to root their narrative in murky interactions and just enough intrigue to create an unsettling atmosphere.
Likewise, group leader Hal (Tate Ellington) and female accomplice Anna (Callie Hernandez) strike the perfect balance between folksy homeliness and new-age outlook, causing the viewer to wonder if brothers Justin and Aaron are simply damaged goods too fragile to recognize the simple organic ‘hippie-ness’ of the community.
It’s not long after that when things begin to fall off the rails, though, and time, place, memory and self become tortured imprints of the past. The Endless gets explanatory, if one could even call it that, but it also loses momentum, choosing to stretch its wonky ideas out into long portions of the film that feel like strained seriousness more than genuine storytelling.
Watching The Endless, I’m reminded of similar independent sci-fi excursions also known as ‘challenging.’ The films of Shane Carruth, for example, trade in some of the same esoteric ideas of time travel like Primer (2004) or man’s ultimate connection to others in the universe as he explored in the wonderfully weird Upstream Color (2013). All of these efforts share a willingness to expand and confront genre with radical (and low budget) means. It may not always make sense, but we go with the filmmaker’s drive and energy.
The problem with The Endless is its energy and drive constantly rev up and then go nowhere. By the film’s finale, I felt like one of its poor souls wrapped up in a time warp, constantly teased by the prospect of escape, then battered with having to do it all over again.
The Endless opens on Friday, May 11 at the Angelika Film Center in Dallas.